How do I know if I am experiencing vicarious trauma and how can counselling help me with it?
Vicarious trauma is a term used to describe the trauma that is experienced by a practitioner (or support person, carer, service provider) as a direct result of helping someone through their trauma experience. Listening to people’s painful and distressing stories can sometimes take its toll on the worker, and if not addressed, may result in the support person needing support themself.
Risk factors are many and include:
- low support at your workplace
- lack of training relating to secondary trauma
- a workplace that is under pressure through insufficient staff and resources
- unrealistic workload
- history of trauma yourself
- social isolation
Some signs that this may be happening to you include:
- feeling overwhelmed, physically or emotionally drained/exhausted, overloaded, burnt out
- feeling angry, enraged, and sad about client’s victimisation – these feelings linger
- feeling a loss of pleasure, apathetic, depressed, despairing that nothing will improve
- overly involved emotionally with the client
- feeling isolated, alienated, distant, detached, rejected by colleagues
- experiencing bystander guilt, shame, or feelings of self-doubt
- feeling a heightened sense of vulnerability (that is, a decreased sense of safety for yourself and/or others)
- preoccupied with thoughts of clients outside of you work
- over-identification with the client (such as having horror or rescue fantasies)
- thoughts of hopelessness, pessimism, cynicism, nihilism
- questioning your competence, self-worth
- low job satisfaction
- challenging basic beliefs of safety, trust, esteem, intimacy and control.
- distancing, numbing, detachment, cutting clients off, staying busy
- disconnection and withdrawal from colleagues, friends and family
- increased irritation and frustration
- avoid listening to the client’s trauma story
- may start to experience symptoms similar to those seen in clients (such as intrusive imagery, somatic symptoms, nightmares relating to the trauma content)
- impact on personal relationships and inability to experience intimacy
- high overall general distress level
- over-extend self and assimilate client’s traumatic material
- difficulty maintaining professional boundaries with the client and others
- lack of motivation at work
- increased use of alcohol or substances to numb feelings
Questions to ask yourself
- How am I doing?
- What do I need?
- What would I like to change?
- What’s hardest about this work?
- What worries me most about my work?
- How have I changed since I began this work? Both positively and negatively.
- What changes, if any, do I see in myself that I do not like?
- Am I experiencing any signs of vicarious trauma (feelings…cognitions…behaviour)
- What am I doing and what have I done to address potential and/or current vicarious trauma?
- As I think of my work with my clients, what are my specific goals?
- What is my sense of personal accomplishment in my work?
- What work barriers get in the way of me having more satisfaction and how can these barriers addressed?
- What am I going to do take care of myself?
- How can I keep going as a person while working with traumatised clients?
- How can I use social supports more effectively?
- How do I find a balance between caring too much and caring too little?
Some strategies for self-care
- increase your awareness of potential vicarious trauma situations
- develop and maintain a realistic work-life balance
- engage in a regular self-care routine
- regularly debrief with another colleague or peer
- mobilise organisational supports to prevent and address vicarious trauma
- know your limits and boundaries, and stick to them
- attend regular supervision (group or individual)
- find activities that are meaningful to you and are independent to your work environment
- find positive ways to cope with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings rather than reaching for alcohol, drugs or food
- make time for healthy social encounters
- access personal therapy when needed
How can a psychologist or counsellor help you?
Sometimes it can help to speak to someone who is neutral and outside your workplace organisation. They can help you to develop different ways of being present with your clients as they talk about their trauma, debrief your reactions to their traumatic events, explore the impact your work is having on you, whilst actively putting into place strategies for self-care to help you balance your life.
If you are seeking the services of a psychologist or counsellor in Perth, please contact me on 0406 033 644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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